Old arguments writ new

7 June 2006

The blog slanging match over books just won't go away. Thanks to Scott Karp of Publishing 2.0 for finding a single link that sums much of this one up. He decries the polarised arguments. In the red corner, we have people who believe that authors suck and need to be replaced pronto by the audience. There's nothing that can't be fixed without a mashup. In the blue corner, people who think books are just fine and those who want to have their comments and annotations scribbled all over a web version just haven't learned what reading is all about.

Personally, I'd take a position quite close to the blue corner. However, what is most striking about this debate is its age. To read the stuff being posted now, you would think no-one had visited this topic before. All that's happened, with perhaps one important and probably unfortunate addition, is that the web has made possible some theories that literary theorists had 30 or more years ago. Roland Barthes, in 1968, argued that authors don't matter, only readers. He wanted the 'writerly text', where the audience effectively creates the book, inserting all the meanings: "...make the reader no longer a consumer, but a producer of the text". OK, S/Z is not the most accessible book ever written, but the deconstructionists did have a good go at promoting the idea of user-generated content, and used made-up words for the purpose - another phenomenon of the current 'media revolution'.

When you read Jeff Jarvis's claim that a book is where words go to die - the statement that did most to kick off this meme - you have to wonder whether his distaste for old-fashioned paper and ink convinced him that it was not worth looking for prior art on his idea of a gestalt text that user participation would build. Then again, Jarvis seems incapable of copy-typing even short paragraphs from printed volumes on to his blog, despite this being allowed under fair-use rights and not exactly difficult. Only by virtue of Yochai Benkler’s The Wealth of Networks being online was Jarvis able to quote two lines from it. (Benkler's found a great way to get people to buy the physical volume - publishing it online with a green Comic Sans font makes you want to find the limited, ex-forest edition.)

In his dead-tree volume Ambient Findability (which actually is available for searching through O'Reilly Media's Safari system - they're not all bad those O'Reilly folks), Peter Morville recounted the 1945 Atlantic article written by Vannevar Bush that introduced the conceptual forerunner of the read-write web, the memex. (The article is also accessible online, phew.) Based on a mid-20th Century idea of technology, the memex was mechanically intensive, but was a clear description of how people might use technology to improve their library research and even use, ahem, the Wisdom of Crowds:

Wholly new forms of encyclopedias will appear, ready made with a mesh of associative trails running through them, ready to be dropped into the memex and there amplified. The lawyer has at his touch the associated opinions and decisions of his whole experience, and of the experience of friends and authorities.

Yes, you did read the date right: 1945. But I forget that this is the brave new world of social media - pre-2000 ideas have died with the printed volumes that contained them. Or, at least, that's the excuse. It's can't be that the blog-book boosters can't be arsed to visit a library or their own bookshelves once in a while only to find out that their big idea has something of a history.

Curiously, everyone talks about the book as though it is a separate medium to the printed word's means of distribution. Books are just collections of printed paper, presented (with luck) in page order. Books carry novels, or tutorials, or essays. Those are things that people should be arguing about.

There is a lot to be said for highly linked tutorials, as described in Bush's essay. And the structure of novels has hardly been touched since the form first appeared, itself much derided for not being the works of great philosophers or the great playwrights. Now relieved from the need to maintain a linear structure, different forms are possible. But that's not a new idea either - try Marshall McLuhan's Understanding Media for some hints on cultural differences and their influence on narrative form. You can get it as an e-book; but the print version works just as well. And does not need rebooting. Chapter nine, The Written Word, is the bit you want.

No, the worrying aspect of Jarvis's brave new world of the online book is its wikipedisation, a grey goo of technology-enabled nit-picking sameness foisted upon anything with an individual idea. Science fiction has shown us the horror of thousands of people poring over signs, signifiers, backstory and plot in TV series and novel arcs that were not designed to be all that cohesive taken as a whole - burying the central ideas under the minutiae of continuity errors and plot holes. Less Search for Spock than Quest for Canon. Only, courtesy of social-media automation, we will get added spam too.

Jarvis moans about the tyranny of the blockbuster in bookshops. Imagine what a Da Vinci Code with added Network Effect is going to look like. OK, bad example, that's a book that deserves this treatment, especially the spam. But there is a reason why authors often lock themselves away to finish off a book - if they start worrying about what people will think, they don't write so well. Forcing them to fend off varying degrees of comment spam in their "active novel" is not going to get us better literature or ideas. And I thought that was the important thing about those old-fashioned books.